Was the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (1871-1875) a “major league”? Your answer, obviously, depends on what you mean by “major league,” and on how much importance you attach to the label. People often interpret the conferral or denial of the major league label as a verdict on the league, its quality of play, and the admissibility of its playing records as measures of performance. If the NA’s a major league, then its stats “count” for various purposes; if not, they don’t, which generally means that Ross Barnes or Deacon White or somebody is held not to be HOF-worthy. Yet the NA’s quality of play is not what the debate was originally about.
The modern roots of this dispute lie in the decision of the Special Baseball Records Committee in 1968 to exclude the NA from the ranks of the major leagues due to its “erratic schedule and procedures,” while including as “major” such paragons of stability as the Union Association.
What was the context of this decision? The Special Records Committee was convened by the commissioner to adjudicate problems and discrepancies that arose out of the effort to create The Baseball Encyclopedia. What they were trying to decide was what should be included in the “official” record. In the end, the NA could not be entirely ignored, because it was in fact the top level of professional baseball in its time. But its numbers were segregated in their own section, and the players’ individual entries in the main section of the encyclopedia all started with the 1876 National League.
Look at the NA statistics in the early editions of the Big Mac. There are no extra base hits, no batters’ walks, no pitchers’ walks or strikeouts. Many, many blank spaces, in other words—a lack of detail that goes far, far beyond later gaps in caught stealing or batters’ strikeout data, for instance. The statistical record on the NA was, in the late 1960s, just not up to the standard of the rest of major league history.
A number of the deficiencies commonly cited against the NA’s major status and held to taint its playing statistics—imbalanced schedules, the membership of second-tier clubs such as the Keokuk Westerns, the domination of the Boston Red Stockings—also characterize the putatively “major” Union Association, say, or the 1890 American Association. Rather, I have a feeling that the sketchiness of the statistical record available for the league in 1968—a simple lack of numbers for many categories—was the key factor in getting it declared non-major. It would have made the early players’ records look incomplete, even ugly; and it would have interfered with the calculation of career totals and averages.
That’s not really a problem anymore, of course. But the dispute remains, partly because some people misinterpret the 1968 decision (and the institutional inertia that has allowed it to stand) as a verdict by knowledgeable authorities on the quality of play in the National Association when, I’d suggest, it was really about the completeness of information. In other words, it was not about how the stats are unreliable measures of performance because of too many games against the Middletown Mansfields or whatever; it was about how the stats were (at that time) incomplete.
In the end, I completely agree with this post. Whether or not you label the NA a major league really isn’t going to change the way people interested in the 1870s think about it. Anyone analyzing the careers of early professional ballplayers will use NA data, regardless of MLB’s or the Elias Sports Bureau’s official dictates about its status. The NA will remain what it was, no matter what labels we impose on it or which section of the encyclopedias we put it in. And, with historical baseball data increasingly computerized and online, such editorial decisions are less and less relevant in any case.
UPDATE 11:55 a.m. Btw, it’s important to emphasize that the original 1969 Baseball Encyclopedia was a major event in both the baseball and publishing worlds as 1) the first trade book entirely typeset on a computer and 2) the first attempt to reconcile and correct the whole major league record. The “look” of the thing, and specifically the appearance of completeness, could not have been too far from anyone’s mind.